Five lessons from The 4-Hour Work Week
The negative reviews for Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week scared me off three
A con man who needs to be taken down.
Modern day snake oil.
This advice works if you’re already making $40,000 a month, otherwise forget it.
When my curiosity finally won out, I was braced for a hyper-ventilating sermon: “Start a ‘business,’
scam gullible people out of millions, then abscond to the Caribbean and guzzle piña coladas until
your dying day.”
Fortunately, that’s not the message of The 4-Hour Work Week. Instead, this is
a funny, engaging book about focus, freedom and choosing the life you want to lead, rather than
accepting your current conditions as your permanent lot.
It’s the most exciting book I’ve read since David Allen’s Getting Things Done,
and it promises to have a similar long term impact on me. The phrase “life-changing” seems a bit
overheated, but it’s certainly changed my outlook in important ways.
The following are five takeaways from the book that I’ve already started applying.
(Quick aside: Some of the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, and I’ll make a small
commission if you choose to use them.)
Minimize input to maximize output
I’m an information addict. While I’ve lowered my intake of information junk food over the last few
months, I still check my email frequently, scan my RSS feeds a few times a day, read several
books a month, and listen to 10 or so podcasts a week. Oh, and lately I’ve added obsessive
checking of my various analytics metrics to the list. How many hits today?
This voracious consumption was necessary to jumpstart my late entry into the software development
industry. Now that I’m established, it’s become just something that I do. I’m feel a little like
Jack Bauer, still shooting up long after taking down the drug kingpin. The habit has outlived its
usefulness, and it’s time to kick it.
Ferriss writes that free time is useless without free attention, and by filling every free
moment with new information I’m fragmenting my attention until I barely notice that my
22-month-old son just said a new word.
Another downside of this constant flood of information for me is that it generates a constant
stream of ideas and things that I might want to do, which my GTD-trained brain reflexively
grabs, processes and categorizes. I’m already quite capable of generating endless lists of
ideas to keep myself busy; I don’t need any help.
Ferriss proposes a week-long information fast, in which you shun all non-essential information
intake. No nonfiction reading, news, TV, podcasts. It’s shock therapy to help you refocus and
reclaim your attention.
I haven’t mustered the courage to go cold turkey yet, but I plan to do it soon. In the mean time,
I’ve further ratcheted down my access to my favorite time sinks with RescueTime and
the StayFocusd chrome browser extension.
Maybe next week I’ll take a full seven days off. Yeah, that sounds good. Next week.
Trade control for freedom
Ferriss’s promotion of personal outsourcing is at once controversial and one of the main action
items that readers latch onto. But he’s not suggesting that hiring a virtual assistant will
allow you to offload 36 hours of your week onto some poor schlub in a developing country. The
VA chapters are part of a larger theme: Letting go of control in some smaller aspects of your
life will allow you to focus on the areas where your efforts will generate maximum impact.
He recommends practicing the art of “letting small bad things happen.” Given the choice between
finishing an important project or rushing out to return a DVD to avoid a $5 fine, he’ll take the
This was a bit of a shock to my system. In my world, incurring a late fee on a payment is a failure
of the highest magnitude and deserving of days of self recrimination.
Ferriss isn’t suggesting that you let your life go to seed, but he is prompting you to ask, What
am I giving up to avoid this $5 fee?
Outsourcing is part of this mental shift. By nature entrepreneurs think they can and should excel at
everything. That’s me to a T, but now I’m looking for small ways to change this.
I know my way around tools, but I have a growing list of small home repairs and improvements that
putting off for months or years. No more; I’m going to hire a handyman to do them. It’s worth an
extra $100 or $200 to have those things done, and as a programmer I can probably make a profit if I
freelance while the guy works.
Similarly, I’m bursting with ideas for infoproducts that I want to create, so I’m starting to hire
freelancers to get a jump on the content while I am busy with my day job. I can also use help
scheduling interviews, doing preliminary research and transcribing interview recordings. As much as
I like to be self sufficient, it’s time to be realistic about my limitations.
Automate income to create freedom
Another controversial aspect of the 4HWW is the concept of an automated income stream. Ferriss
recommends a process for developing a product-based business that, once put in motion, can run with
minimal involvement from you.
He provides several hypothetical case studies that illustrate what types of products lend
themselves to creating low-maintenance income streams, how to ensure that there’s a demand for a
product, how to bring it to market, and then how to set it to run on autopilot.
Critics knock this as impractical: Most people could never start a business that would generate
cash flow on its own so they could lead less soul-crushing lives.
While it’s true that most people won’t ever achieve this, I don’t buy the argument that the reason
they’ll fail is that it’s unattainable for most.
Case in point: An acquaintance of mine holds a low-paying blue collar job maintaining heavy
equipment for a municipal government, and he’s frustrated and unfulfilled. His working conditions
are atrocious and the yokels he works with are mostly interested in lining their pockets with
He doesn’t seem like a natural candidate for a 4HWW makeover, but when I look at his situation, I
see a gold mine. This guy is a highly skilled mechanic with decades of experience working on
everything from heavy equipment to race cars. He’s sitting on a wealth of knowledge that many
people would be happy to pay for. Hobbyists spend thousands to restore classic cars, many of
which are the very cars my friend spent his youth servicing. Might some of them be willing to pay
$50 or $80 for a DVD or downloadable video to learn how to properly reline a set of antique brakes
or correctly hone the cylinders in their garage queen?
If he could find 1,000 hobbyists who want his help, he’d likely double his current income,
and he’d barely have to work to do it. Then with his extra cash, he could open a machine
shop that catered to classic car buffs.
Guaranteed to succeed? Nope. Realistic and achievable with some work? Certainly.
Don’t expect the 4HWW to answer every question you’ll before you can start your own business, but
it provides a solid blueprint that will allow you to generate income and increase your freedom,
without continuing to trade time for money.
Separate your life’s work from your income
Reading The 4-Hour Work Week challenged me to reexamine my goals and dreams in a different
light: What would I do with myself if the majority of my waking hours weren’t spent in the pursuit
In one of my previous jobs, I spent days and weeks building websites that virtually no one ever saw
or used. It’s demoralizing to spend the majority of your day on something you know is virtually
My current job is far from meaningless. I’m helping to solve hard problems, and the results help
real people do their work more effectively. Our company culture is fun, and my coworkers are
smart and personable. If I have to work for someone else until I retire, I want to work at
companies like this one.
But what if I didn’t have to work? That’s a scary thought.
To Ferriss, the point of creating a low-maintenance income stream isn’t to grow fat and happy while
lounging by the pool. An automated business is a lever to create freedom so you focus on things
that bring greater satisfaction: learning and service to others.
If I succeed in setting up my own automated income stream, I plan to keep plenty busy:
- Enjoy every minute possible with my wife and sons.
- Teach urban teens how to build successful careers and bootstrap their way out of poverty. It
frustrates me to no end that people think they can’t get ahead when the entire store of the
world’s knowledge is literally at their fingertips. I want to help a few people find the
freedom I’m enjoying.
- Write and write some more. Writing was my first career choice, and I’d love for it to become
my primary occupation again someday.
- Get back into activities that I’ve allowed to languish, like playing my beautiful Taylor
guitar, practicing martial arts and playing soccer.
Others might use such a revene-generating business to finance dream of starting a company to tackle
“the big problems.” Who says the only way to do a startup is kowtowing to venture capitalists or
eating Ramen while sleeping on a friends couch?
Live life today
Probably the biggest lesson I’m taking away from The 4-Hour Work Week is this: Stop
deferring life for a day that may never come. Don’t trade 40 or 50 years in a cubicle for a vision
of 401K-funded leisure that might never materialize. Instead, Ferriss recommends taking “mini
retirements” by living abroad for a few months or a year at a time, using the income generated by
your low-maintenance business.
I have a goal to “retire” early, which to me means building a large enough reserve that I’m not
dependent on a job. I hope I never have to retire in the traditional sense, but I want my choices
to be unconstrained by the requirement of scraping out a living.
I enjoy working toward this goal, and often it is exhilarating and doesn’t even feel like work. But
I’m not giving my family the time and attention they deserve.
Instead of plowing ahead at 70 or 80 hours a week, trading my kids’ childhoods for a dream of an
early retirement, I’m looking for ways I can limit my work hours and maximize my results by
outsourcing parts of my projects.
I’m also investing in myself: I’m almost one third of the way through the P90X extreme
fitness program, and I’m determined to kick my scrawny butt into something resembling good shape.
It’s a commitment of more than an hour a day. All the more reason to sharpen my focus in the time
I’ve allotted for work.
What’s my plan?
I don’t know yet what my main passive income stream will eventually be, and that’s fine by me. When
I define a goal and keep it in the back of my mind, I’ve found I’m able to recognize the right
opportunity when it arises.
But I’m exploring two potential revenue streams that lend themselves well to automation and are a
natural fit for my current skill set and interests: infoproducts and software-as-a-service products.
One of my all time favorite books is Paper Lions by George Plimpton. Plimpton was
a practitioner of “gonzo journalism,” which involved putting yourself in extreme circumstances and
then writing about your experiences. In college, I wanted to be George Plimpton.
Thanks to the rising popularity of ebooks, those dreams are reawakening. I’m wired to acquire new
skills, achieve a satisfactory level of proficiency, then move on to something else. That’s one thing
that appealed to me about journalism; my daily task was to become an instant expert in some new
field or skill I’d never encountered before. I have a list of things I’d like to do someday that’s
so long it makes my head spin.
What better way to harness this temperament then building a business around learning new things and
communicating them to others in a tight, 50-80 page ebook?
My wife, also is an avid writer, is lighting up at the possibility of working together with me to
build a ebook-based business. Together, we’d be an entrepreneurial, content-generating machine.
Another avenue I’d like to pursue is creating a software-as-a-service product, tightly targeted to
solve a painful business problem for a group of professionals. I have some strong existing
relationships in the real estate industry, so that’s where I’ll be looking first. I’m not worried
about having The Idea yet; it’ll come when I understand the pain of my target market. And with the
technical skills I’ve cultivated over the last few years, I’m confident I’ll be able to execute when
The Idea presents itself.
One small step …
This month I began my journey. I saw a small trickle of passive income. A few dollars earned from
effort expended weeks ago. The money arrived while my wife and I spent a weekend visiting family and
enjoying our boys. My mission over the next couple of years is to turn that trickle into a flood.
Sure, not everyone will be able to pull this off. Maybe I’ll be one of the ones who come up short.
But when I look back at what I’ve been able to accomplish that I never thought possible, I can’t
help but think, “Yeah, I got this.”